Natural winemaking is on one hand a vague term, and on the other, very simple.
After an interview several years ago, I wrote about Kevin McKenna, one of the partners of Louis Dressner, an early importer of “natural wine.” Since then, the term and its philosophy have become much more widespread, not only in France where it first took hold, but also in California.
The basic tenets of natural wine would be:
Employing organic or biodynamic viticulture without the use of any chemicals in the vineyard. Many vintners would also say that certification is a must, as it guarantees these methods are being followed.
Using natural yeast during fermentation.
Minimal or no sulfur.
The idea behind natural wines is that the wine should be expressive of its terroir. A problem here is that “natural” winemaking methods can result in volatile acidity and bacterial problems. This is true of conventional winemaking as well, but the low use of sulfur makes natural wines more prone to acidity and bacterial issues.
As natural wines are seeping into the consciousness of Bay Area wine buyers, there is bound to be confusion. If you are curious, there are a couple of handfuls of producers from California dedicated to natural winemaking. Here are the most consistent and some of the wines to look for.
Broc Cellars: Located in Berkeley, Chris Brockway’s winery has become a hamlet for many as his wines are seldom less than excellent. The winery is famous for its carbonic carignan, and I love its Cassia grenache and cabernet franc with verve.
Dashe Cellars: Dashe is mostly about zinfandel. They have taken this grape, which can be way over the top, and restored some balance by making wines that have restraint and class. The Heart Arrow Ranch from a biodynamic vineyard is superb, but I also like the Florence Vineyard bottling quite a bit.
Dirty & Rowdy: I’ve mentioned the semillon from Dirty & Rowdy before, but its mourvedre from the Rosewood Vineyards in Redwood Valley is smoking. It reminds me of a great Tempier Bandol with its mushroom rusticity, yet there is also a healthy amount of fruit.
La Clarine Farm: Across the board, La Clarine Farm makes sensational wines. I’ve tasted a range over the past few years and am convinced it is one of the best producers in the United States. While the wines have personality, they are clean.
Jolie-Laide: These wines are deserving of way more attention. Understated but not dull, they’re pure and expressive, and delightfully subtle. The Trousseau Gris is a summertime favorite.
Wind Gap: Pax Mahle used to make big, extracted wines under a different label. And while those wines were quite different from what he’s up to at Wind Gap, they were good in their own right. However, I’ve been more appreciative of what he’s been doing since he began to apply a lighter touch. The copper-colored pinot gris is a personal favorite.
Pamela S. Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched TheVinguard.com.FeaturesFood & DrinkFood and WineKevin McKennaLouis Dressnernatural wine